Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - Music in the Streets

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life6.gif (46569 bytes)WE happen to live in a quarter of London peculiarly favourable for studying the varieties of the perambulating musicians of the thoroughfares. In this class we do not include the brass bands who take up their position in front of a gin-shop, and peal out waltzes, polkas, and operatic novelties, with all the force that cornets-a-piston and trombones can give, to large surrounding crowds. The entreprise, in this case, is of comparative magnitude, and the members of the band have a certain position. They may be seen, on other occasions, in the orchestra of the cheap public ballroom, on board the Richmond or Gravesend steamers, or possibly heading an election procession. Nay, we have at times detected some of the troupe as beef-eaters, or anomalous foreigners, in caps of sham tiger-skins shaped like huge flower-pots, and robes of bed-curtain chintz (of the "furnished-apartment" fabric, which keeps clean, or rather conceals dirt, so long), blowing away all their energies in front of a menagerie or dancing-show at a large fair. They have evidently many resources for turning their acquirements to account, and are not specimens of the tribe we are about to notice. The real Street Musician depends solely [-40-] upon the streets for his means of existence; and they must be streets of a certain kind.
    We have said that the one in which we reside furnishes us with good specimens: It leads from a great thoroughfare to next to none at all, and so is tolerably quiet in itself, although close to a running stream of population. The greater part of its houses are let into lodgings on the ground; first, and second floors, and this gives it a large number of inhabitants. They are mostly quiet, stay-at-home people, either from inclination or profession - the first are guided by their means; the latter are artists. You may know where they live from their tall drawing-room window rising up to the floor of the apartment above. In fact it is a street of artistes altogether, in the general acceptation of the word. In summer, when the windows are open, you will hear the rumblings of professional pianos, or the endeavours of tenors in training to reach fearful notes; you may also listen to a single violin accompanying the tuition of a pupil in the mysteries of the polka or deux-temps. There are two medical men in the street. One enacts the high legitimate drama of his profession- his house is solemn and unadorned; the other trusts to effect and scenic display, and mounts a deep red lamp like a railway danger signal. There is not much traffic; private carriages wait at the doors, or drawl up and down in the shade, and hack cabs occasionally scuffle and clatter over the stones; or a break makes a journey of doubtful safety from the livery-stables at the end: but this is all. Nor are the foot-passengers very numerous, except on fine afternoons, and then such swarms of pretty girls glide along the pavement on their way to the West-end from the Torrington, and Woburn, [-41-] and Russell Square districts, that a susceptible looker-on, in ambush, behind his wire-gauze window-blinds, may well get beside himself.
    This is just the kind of neighbourhood that the Street Musicians affect, and they haunt it all day long. They glean more from lodging-houses than from private dwellings. Those who are not very well off themselves have greater sympathy with them.
    The first music is heard at early morning, whilst we are dressing. It is a harsh organ, and must be played principally to the servants who are cleaning the doorsteps - its invariable air, "We may be happy yet," suggesting anticipations of the evening kitchen, swept up and clean for tea; possibly a vision of a small shop in the general line; or, may be, a thought of the policeman or the soldier. The sound vanishes, and at breakfast-time a mighty instrument drawn on wheels, reminding one of a quantity of, trumpets shut up in a book-case and ground into tunes, takes up its place, with two attendants, before the window, and bursts forth into the prayer from "Moses in Egypt" with a force perfectly startling. This collects a small audience, for there is a conjuror in the top compartment of the case who keeps lifting up two small cups, displaying oranges, dice, and anon nothing at all, as he     bows his head gravely and opens his mouth. There is another cup in the middle, which is never lifted up at all, but this complicates the trick, and makes it more mystic. There is a singular circumstance connected with this instrument which will be worth looking after. The one we speak of is accompanied by a black dog who really knows the houses from which former collections have been made. He sits up on his hind legs and barks at [-42-] the upper windows until the expected halfpenny is thrown out; when this is done, he puts his head between the area railings, and generally obtains a few scraps from the servants.
    As this monster accordion is drawn away, a singularly distressing noise is heard approaching from the other end of the street. If it be possible that the sounds of the Pastoral Symphony can represent certain meteorological phenomena, and that Lieder ohne worte suggest their own, then may this discord depict great intestinal agony - the stomach-ache of unripe fruit, and bad vin ordinaire, and Italian cream. It comes on, and we now perceive a cripple - who prefers the mud in the middle of the road to the pavement - dragging his own load on, until he rests himself upon a small crutch like an augur, and tortures a clarionet in the most lamentable fashion. This man's performance is remarkable from its utter badness. He does not attempt to play any tune, but lifts up or stops down his fingers according to chance - at least so it appears - and always finishes on a note that has nothing at all to do with the key. But the noise he contrives to make is awful. If Verdi were dead, he would produce more unpleasant riot in the year than anybody else in the world.
    He moves away; and like the Dutch toys, in which certain objects - such as poultry, railway trains, boats, or soldiers - are wound round and round, popping out of one sentry-box, and ducking down into another, to the mild tinkling of certain plectra and tightened wires within, another object succeeds him. This is an organ again, that plays "Maid, those bright eyes," from La Sonnambula, unchangingly. But it has the advantage over the very first, in possessing a mechanical [-43-] attraction. On its top is arranged a ball-room, of high society. To the left, the Guards' band, in full uniform, is playing to the dancers; on the right, certain distinguished guests, in remarkable toilets, which partake of the fashions of the inmates of Noah's ark and the small-jointed men who grind the mysterious toy-mills, in chocolate coats and light green hats, are playing cards, reading the newspapers, or conversing. On a revolving "turn-table," in the centre, are the dancers, They are performing an anomalous figure. It is neither a polka nor a deux-temps, nor an ancient waltz; perhaps it is that mystic measure formerly called a jig. They are mostly paired; but one gentleman prefers dancing by himself, and his innate politeness is shown by his raising his hat every time he faces the spectators. When the Quadrille is over, a party of horse-artillery enter at a pair of folding-doors, and ride across the salle-de-dance, which impresses us with the idea that the assembly is of a seditious and turbulent character; but they go out again very orderly at an opposite egress, and then the ball once more commences.
    They have scarcely departed, when the rumbling, as it were, of an approaching storm, breaks in upon the fete champêtre, and we recognise the approach of the Scotch itinerant band. Three tendon scrapers, presumed to be blind, come on, keeping close to the area railings, and making a noise more fearful even than the man with the clarionet. Yet, through it all there is some shadow of an air-some, "Tullochgorum," or " Cockie-leekie," or "Gillie-callum," or "Lassie o' Pibroch," or whatever it means, for we must confess that Scotch terms are greatly confused in our minds, from the number of "entertainments" Mr. Wilson [-44-] gave rise to. They keep doggedly on, sawing away at their instruments, and would drive their hearers distracted, did not a piano-organ follow them, as an antidote, with "Old Dan Tucker," and the "German Polka."
    We have met with enthusiasts who, in their admiration of any particular artiste, have followed him or her about, from one capital to another, wherever their engagements led them. We have, indeed, known those who have been present at every one of Jenny Lind's debuts in the various cities of Europe - who, enthralled by the charming Carlotta Grisi's impassioned Esmeralda, have been led, in a wandering truandaise, over pretty nearly the same route - who have never missed one night of Van Amburg's daring performances with the lions, or of Palmyre Anato's graceful leaps through the hoops. The performer on the piano-organ is accompanied by an amateur of similar constancy, in the shape of a boy with hones, who performs an obligato whenever he stops. They have never spoken to one another, nor does any token of recognition pass between them; but the rattle always comes in at the proper place with Ethiopian accuracy, and when this pitch for catching halfpence is exhausted they move away, simultaneously, to another.
    The old air, "Hark! tis the Indian drum!" suggests itself, as a tum-tum sound is next heard at the end of the thoroughfare, and a lascar appears, in company with a small dark child, who strives to sing some popular street air, whilst he beats the time on a primitive instrument, fashioned from an oyster barrel, with parchment ends, after the Ojibbeway pattern. The performance is not calculated to impress us with high notions of an Asiatic orchestra; and it is only surpassed, [-45-] in lack of meaning, by the efforts of a revoltingly-dirty Italian boy to grind music from a dilapidated piano-organ with only one or two wires remaining, which are struck or not as chance directs. He is, to appearance, an idiot; and the small fry of the neighbouring alleys make fun of him; but those conversant with street impostures assure us that it is a capital assumption of imbecility to provoke the alms of the feeble-minded.
    From the time of the appearance of this wretched creature, until nightfall, the invasion of distressing sounds still keeps on. Savoyards, with hurdy-gurdies; Dutch girls, with organs and tambourines, who sing outlandish melodies; single violinists; Pandaean pipists, who accompany Punch, the fantoccini, the mountebanks, and hornpipe dancers, pass before our windows without intermission. And then - when the lamps are lighted in the streets and shops, and the ceaseless roar of wheels somewhat abates - a new class of musicians comes forth. 
    These have rather more pretensions to melody than those of the daytime. They are found now and then with a harp in their small band; and they perform songs with voices whose wrecks show that at one time they possessed certain taste and musical knowledge. We have encountered females playing the violin with no mean skill; and once we remember to have seen an old jangling piano wheeled about the streets, on which a poor artiste performed with much ability. When these little groups become known, they are admitted to the entrances of taverns, or the parlours of the lower order of public-houses, and make a considerable sum in the course of an evening; and then they leave our [-46-] street altogether. For the neutral gloom of the middle of the thoroughfare does not suit them. If they cannot get opposite the flaring gas jet of a ticketed shop, or under the bright lamp of a gin-shop, their chances of remuneration are small.
    The history of these wandering professionals is generally told in the same kind of story. Possibly, at first the man is in some kind of regular employment, and a simple musical amateur, playing for his own amusement after hours. Gradually he ceases to attend to his proper business, and gets a situation in the orchestra of a saloon or minor theatre, preferring to live from "hand to mouth"- a common failing with artistic idiosyncrasies in general. Here he first meets the female, who may play small singing parts; or is, perhaps, in the chorus, if the establishment is of sufficient importance to engage one. They marry, or establish some less reputable menage; and then the struggle for the crust begins. Several single engagements are to be obtained at the old establishments, but none that will occupy them both. A singing villager may be wanted to express delight at the fête of calico roses and papier maché refreshments; or a musical chambermaid is required to sing an interpolated ballad in what is called the "carpenter's scene" of the piece, when a pair of flats are pushed together, nearly close to the footlights, to allow something especial to be got ready behind; but the place of the second violin is occupied, and likely to remain so; or vice versa. And so, after much privation and misery, with possibly an infant to add to their distress, they contrive to learn some duets and single ballads, and procure an engagement at a public-house twopennny concert.
    [-47-] From this moment they sink lower and lower in their wretchedness. The man was not a drunkard before; but now, as soon as he has finished his dreary comic song, and, putting on his hat, returns to his place at one of the tables, half-a-dozen glasses of hard ale, "turpenny" gin-and-water, or dark empyreumatic brandy, are offered to him by his admirers. Always something to drink-never so much even as a biscuit and cheese, or a penny ham-sandwich to eat. These mixed and impure beverages, the tobacco-clouded atmosphere of the room, and the late hours, combined with the occasional wandering from one "saloon" to another, entirely destroy his constitution. He can eat no breakfast, but he can drink - always drink - for he is always thirsty; and the prima donna of the concert huddles a shawl over her worn merino dress, and goes out for some more of the hard ale. Gradually he gets asthmatic, and can no longer sing. The female goes out by herself, and earns ten or twelve shillings a-week, the greater part of which goes in drink, until her companion is prostrated by delirium tremens, and she is compelled to stay at home with him.
    Heaven only knows how they then contrive to exist, for they can scarcely be said to live. The relieving officer might perhaps enlighten us thereon, but relieving officers see so much wretchedness, that succeeding cases make no impression on their minds sufficiently vivid to be retained. At length, however, the man recovers; but he is no longer of any use in the concert-room. A violin is not wanted. If he could play the piano, he might thump away upon the grimy keys of an old grand, accompanying songs and murdering polkas between them, for half-a-crown a-night; and even this would [-48-] be a chance. The woman's voice is also gone, together with every trace of whatever decent appearance she might formerly have possessed: and so there is nothing left but the streets. And the stony-hearted streets are henceforth their only hope, until the hospital or workhouse finally receives them.
    If you care to make the inquiry, you will find that this is the usual story, as we have stated, of these distressed artistes. Not being over-addicted to the "humanity-mongery" school of writing, or putting much belief in the "great wrongs" of the tag-rag-and-bobtail of the metropolis, we have told the tale as simply as may be, without trying to work up the sympathies, which have been so falsely and so frequently called upon of late by literary philanthropists, that we will not run the chance of finding no response to our appeal. But this we will say: that if you have a few halfpence jingling in the pocket of your paletôt, you will do well to give them to these poor people. They are not beggars: they evidently do something for their livelihood; and bad as their performance may be, it has required some little application and intelligence to bring it to what it really is.
    Several old acquaintances who once waked the echoes of the quiet streets have gradually departed. First and foremost, we miss the ingenious professor who shook the hat of Chinese bells, beat the drum and cymbals with his knees, and played the mouth-organ, all at once. He is gone, and albeit he must have left his apparatus behind him, no one has supplied his place. Then there was the wandering barytone who sang to the dulcimer, in an oil-skin cap and red whiskers; and whom, in the summer-tide, we can all so [-49-] well recollect upon the sunny turf of Ascot and Egham, between the ropes and the front rank of carriages. Once, too, we had monthly visits from a foreigner, who accompanied his guitar with the Pandaean pipes; but he appears no longer. And, humblest music of all, the simple pipe and tabor, that bespoke the presence of the two Savoyard dolls upon the string, have departed. Possibly we are getting more refined in our notions, and require a higher class of entertainment than these professors offered to us. This is very likely the case. The gin-shop bands and the large organs are by no means to be despised. The gems of the opera are promulgated by them about the streets; and, should the same improvements extend in vocal as well as instrumental music, it is not improbable but that before long vagrant Daughters of the Regiment, and wandering Normas may make their shrill voices heard in our thoroughfares, as the danseuses of Covent Garden and the Haymarket have their humble imitators on the rickety shutter or old bit of carpet placed upon the paving.


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